Mark Twain is so well known for his successes that it's refreshing to learn that he wrote several mediocre plays, mostly commercial-minded light comedies, to help pay bills in his later years. Some of these plays were better than others, and it was only five years ago that Stanford University Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin discovered one diamond in the rough, a crazy send-up of the French art scene called Is He Dead? that Twain wrote in 1898 (it was almost produced, but the plans fell through).
Fishkin published a book version of the play that caught the attention of a top Broadway team headed by Michael Blakemore, and Is He Dead? is finally opening on Broadway this Friday night. I caught a preview last weekend.
Twain's comic sendup of the pre-Impressionist art scene in Paris and Barbizon, France is hardly sophisticated; it resembles a Three Stooges comedy more than a Whit Stillman film, and there's nothing wrong with that. A great real-life painter, Jean-Francois Millet, is the hero of this comedy, although the character based on Millet is played mainly for laughs and would certainly have horrified the real life Millet, who was the creator of many touching scenes of French peasant life, including The Sower:
... which also happens to be the source of the Simon and Schuster logo:
Millet was a revolutionary artist of his time (Vincent Van Gogh admired him), but he gets no respect at all from Mark Twain, who simply employs him as a standard character type, the starving Bohemian artist. Desparate for money, Millet and his rakish friends decide to drive up the prices of his paintings by faking his death, and for some reason they end up dressing Millet as his long-lost sister, turning Is He Dead? into a staple cross-dressing comedy (in the tradition that stretches from Twelfth Night to Tootsie).
And that's where the evening's best talent comes in: skilled comic actor Norbert Leo Butz makes little impression on stage as Millet until he puts on a fancy dress, and then the actor becomes suddenly possessed by an inexplicable strangeness. Butz's performance completely dominates the play at this point, particularly whenever he speaks in a hilarious plaintive bray that evokes Harvey Fierstein or possibly Joan Rivers. The good news is, Butz is so funny that anybody who showed up at the Lyceum Theatre to laugh will be satisfied with Is He Dead?.
The surprising news is that Butz's performance thoroughly eclipses not only every other performer on stage (they are barely noticed), but also eclipses both Mark Twain's script and Jean-Francois Millet's presence as a character. Millet's paintings are well displayed within the clever sets, and Mark Twain's comedy is polished enough. But the remarkable thing about Is He Dead? is Norbert Leo Butz roaming the stage like a madman for an hour and a half, and Norbert Leo Butz doesn't even need a script by Mark Twain or a character like Jean-Francois Millet to do that.
Is He Dead? is good literary history and good laughs. Find out more about the play at the Is He Dead? site.